British Columbia

Descendants of Ukrainians interned in WWI demand provincial acknowledgement

More than 8,500 Eastern Europeans, many of them Ukrainian, were sent to internment and work camps in the First World War, much like the country did with Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War. It's a part of Canadian history that's been largely ignored, many of the interns' descendants say.

More than 8,500 people were sent to internment camps during conflict, most of them Ukrainian immigrants

The Monashee Internment Camp, where internees slept in tents and bunk houses. (Submitted by Lawrna Myers)

Canada's contributions to the Allied efforts in the First World War are well documented — but less so is how it imprisoned some of its own residents during the conflict.

Canada registered more than 80,000 Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants as enemy aliens during the war. More than 8,500 of them were sent to internment and work camps, much like the country did with Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War.

B.C.'s longest standing First World War internment camp was in Vernon, but there were also camps in Edgewood, Monashee, Fernie and Nanaimo.

Now, some of the descendants of those who were interned are petitioning the provincial government to acknowledge this part of Canadian history, which has been largely ignored.

"It's an important piece of our Canadian history and people need to know about it," said Andrea Malysh, a Vernon resident whose great grandfather Wasyl Luchak was sent to an internment camp in Quebec during the war.

"It needs to be addressed for the sake of all our families."

Luchak immigrated to Canada in 1903 on an invitation from the federal government to farm free land in Alberta.

He arrived with an Austro-Hungarian passport, as he came from a region of Ukraine that was then under the rule of that empire. 

"Little did he know that, later on, his passport would become his detriment," said Malysh, who also works for the Canadian First World War Recognition Fund.

Many internees were sent to working camps, like in Mara Lake, B.C., where they were forced to do hard labour. (Courtesy of the Enderby Museum)

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering the First World War.

In Canada, Ukrainians and other Eastern European immigrants connected to the Austro-Hungarian empire were forced to declare themselves as enemy aliens and many were sent to internment camps under the War Measures Act.

The camp in Vernon grew to more than 500 people, according to historian Don McNair, when it was intended to intern only 80.

Many of the camps across Canada became labour camps, with prisoners forced to build roads.

Malysh says much of this history is unknown, as official internment records were deliberately destroyed by the federal government. Also, many survivors chose not to speak of their experiences, she said.

"This piece of our history is buried and was destroyed. It's very tragic … it never got put into our history books," said Malysh.

Prisoners being marched to camp in Edgewood, B.C. (Courtesy of the National Archives of US)

In 2005, the federal government passed the Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act, which recognized the injustice to those interned in the First World War. Now, efforts are being focused on the province.

Earlier this week, Malysh sent a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan, requesting a meeting to discuss provincial acknowledgement. It's a matter Malysh says is urgent, especially as many of the descendants who know the stories are aging and some have died.

Many of them currently belong to the Descendants of Ukrainian-Canadian Internee Victims Association.

"It's an important piece of our Canadian history and people need to know about it," she said, not just as recognition of what happened but also as a reminder of what could be.

"It could happen again. And let's be clear, this shouldn't happen again," she said.

With files from Daybreak South


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